Starring: Joel Edgerton
Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Writer: Trey Edward Shults
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes
It Comes at Night is one of the most intriguing movies I’ve seen in recent years. Definitely fitting in with the rest of the A24 Films, this one leaves you thinking at the end. I apologize in advance, because this review is quite lengthy, as the film leaves so much to be explored. It’s certainly not your run of the mill horror flick, as it toys more with the human mind and the idea of fear, rather than acting on the instinct of fear itself.
This was my first film that Trey Edward Shults had a hand in, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Next time I watch a Shults film, I still don’t think I’ll know quite what to expect. This film was complex from top to bottom, especially in character development. With just five key characters, Shults was able to give us a little insight into each of their personas. We mostly follow 17 year old Travis, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and his family as they attempt to survive through what appears to be an apocalyptic world.
The first scene leads the movie off with what will be the feelings that remain throughout; heavy, eerie and sad. We are greeted by Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) voice urging her father to let go, as we see him covered in sores and clearly on the verge of death. Travis and his father, Paul (Joel Edgerton) then continue to set the tone for the movie, as they wheelbarrow their grandfather to a pre-dug gravesite, shoot him in the head, light him on fire and bury him. Both men are wearing gas masks as they do throughout the movie to help prevent from contracting the disease that is affecting the world around them.
As the body burns, the scene cuts to a shot of Travis’ gas mask, the flames reflecting over his mouth. An eerie shot, possibly alluding to the disease, as the victims are constantly shown vomiting a thick, black, oily substance; the first sign of their impending death. You then see the thick, black, billowing plume of smoke, another allusion to the sickness as it expels from the grandfather’s body.
From there, It Comes at Night delves into humanity at its core.
We are introduced to Will (played by Christopher Abbott) and his family, a wife and young son, who are in desperate need of shelter. Relations between Paul and Will start off as intensely as possible, both holding the other at gunpoint, leading to Paul eventually tying Will to a tree overnight without any form of protection.
It Comes at Night could be considered a slow movie for lack of constant action, but it is carried by incredible acting from Edgerton, Abbott, Harrison, Jr., and Ejogo. Apart from the acting, the film is rather intense, and no moment seems dull to me. Shults uses what seems like every second to his advantage, as you learn more about the characters and their tendencies through scenes that don’t necessarily contain action.
Edgerton plays a man desperate for survival; intense and unbending, he is willing to do anything it takes to keep his family alive. He shows only one moment of weakness – allowing Will’s family to move in. Abbott, on the other hand, is a likable family man, easier going than his counterpart, but with a trait for deceit. Like Edgerton, his character shows the drive to keep his family alive at all costs. Both men play their roles incredibly well, especially during the most intense moments.
The film’s most important character is Travis. Played brilliantly and believably by Harrison, Jr., Travis is a fresh 17 years old. He seems childish for his age; he takes everything to heart and is clearly more emotionally vulnerable than the other characters. On the verge of adulthood by age, Travis is forced into acting like a man by his father and the events transpiring around him.
He is obviously distraught by his grandfather’s death, shown by a variety of different dreams. Travis’ dreams are often unsettling; constantly depicting his sick (and now dead) grandfather, himself covered in the same sores as his grandfather, vomiting the oily liquid, or a dark trip into the woods. His dreams don’t stop there, and on the other hand, as most young men can relate to: sexually driven dreams.
Travis is shown developing a fondness for Will’s family, but especially his wife, Kim. He dreams of her, and clearly begins to develop feelings for her, as the only other woman in his world up to this point in the movie is his own mother. Travis is often awake at night due to his dreams, and spends his time sneaking through the house to eavesdrop on Will’s family, or specifically Kim.
He leans on his grandfather’s dog and his drawing for much of his emotional support, as he gets none from his grizzled and distracted father. Obviously desperate for some sort of acceptance, he begins to seek it via Will, Kim and Andrew (their young son).
We see the two families interact on a variety of different levels, from personal conversations about life before the “apocalypse,” to teaching moments as they trade their secrets for survival. For a time, things seem to be going well, but in a quick sequence of events, Paul catches Will in a lie and the dog runs off into the woods sending everything into a downhill spiral from there.
Once again, Travis wakes in the middle of the night to find Andrew asleep on the floor in his grandfather’s old room. He leads him back to his actual room before taking too long of a look at Will and Kim asleep in bed. On his way back to his room, he hears something and finds the door that leads outside unlocked. Rather than venturing in, he quickly retreats to the safety of his parents room to let them handle the problem.
Paul wakes up Will and they both go to inspect the situation, finding Stanley the dog near death on the floor, whimpering through his last breaths, his insides spilling out of his stomach. After assuring the family that they’re safe, they sadly put Stanley out of his misery. Travis is overcome with emotion, sobbing as the gunshot rings out around them. The two families then gather around the dinner table to discuss what just happened.
This marks the beginning of some extremely tense moments between the families. Accusations, lying, anger and above all a sense of doom are what we pull away from the argument, as the families attempt to discover how the door was open in the first place. They decide to spend a full day apart, locked in their respective rooms to avoid further tension. Like a child who instantly forgets what his parents urged him to remember, Travis sneaks out to listen in on Will’s family in a fervor.
Again, Travis retreats to his parents room to inform them that it sounds like Andrew has contracted the illness. Paul instantly springs into action, bringing firepower and his mask to confront Will and his family.
Will’s true character is exposed in this moment, as he turns on Paul, who accepted him into his home, holding him at gunpoint and attempting to hide the fact that Andrew has come down with “it.” He leads Paul out of their room, only to be met by Sarah and her own firearm. A scuffle, much like the beginning of the movie, ensues and again Paul overpowers Will.
Chaos erupts at this point as Will in turn overcomes Paul, only to be shot in the back by Sarah. Paul gets to his feet and shoots at Kim as she runs away with Andrew in her arms. His shot hits Andrew, and in a hysterical state, Kim prompts Paul to shoot her as well. Which he does, with only a moment’s hesitation. Another moment where a character’s true character emerges while put under pressure.
From there, Travis appears to contract the disease, and we find ourselves where we were in the beginning – with Sarah impelling her son to let go. Paul and Sarah are shown sitting at the table, alone, with empty but concerned looks on their faces.
I found myself happy that the movie ended without revealing what “it” actually was (however, the tapestry depicting the Black Plague at the beginning of the film should have been enough of a hint). When the movie ends, you find yourself sitting with the same look on your face, a whim of confusion and wonder in your head. You can’t help but let out a sigh, as your impending sense of doom never gets to reach a climax.
Much like life, you constantly find yourself awaiting something while watching It Comes at Night. The constant fear of something popping around the corner or coming to reap the harvest of both families is similar (in much lesser concern) to waiting to hear back from your crush, or waiting to hear back from an interview – a looming sense of either disappointment or hope on your mind, but all the while waiting.
The house in the film represents safety, at night the characters feel safe enough to sleep. This is an allusion to the safety that people find in their own heads. Safety from real life; once you’re home from work or school, (most of) your problems seem to disappear. The one place people feel the most comfortable and safe from outer harm.
However, throughout the movie, we see a stream of things breaking into their safe space. Outsiders, sickness and death find their way in, shattering the family’s inner peace and bringing about trauma. These three things are very relatable in our every day lives as well, consistent with all of the things that are scary about being an adult.
Rather than being a film about the apocalypse, sickness, or whatever “it” actually is, It Comes at Night is about the dark reality of humanity. This theme is presented instantly in the first full conversation of the movie. We overhear what is supposed to be a private discussion from Travis’ favorite hiding spot, as his parents quarrel over whether or not he’s old enough to come to terms with the reality of what is happening around them (in this specific case, his grandfather’s death). Paul insists he’s old enough; his mother, attempts to defend him from unnecessary evils while she still can.
Having to adjust in life is about as difficult as anything. We see that as Travis finds it difficult to adapt to the problems he continues to find himself in, most specifically becoming a man and trying to survive life, regardless of the circumstances. Already stuck in a terrible situation, his world is brought down around him when the outsiders get into his safe space. As in real life, the weak go down first, unable to survive against the more persistent or aggressive problems. Travis’ grandfather, Spencer, Andrew, Kim, Will and finally Travis himself.
Upon first watching It Comes in the Night, my initial response was around a 6.4, I found it entertaining and profound. After this review, I am forced to raise my rating as I was able to appreciate the movie for what it really is, and the excellent work that Trey Edward Shults did.